A very useful engine

Singing a new song

I am young. I am sprightly. I am a hip, hop and happening parent who is “down with the youth”. And therefore everything I am about to say is entirely objective and not in any way an indicator of me being grouchy or old.

What I want to tell you is this: Children’s television is not what it used to be. Don’t get me wrong. The content is largely acceptable. The theme tunes, however, are not. Fireman Sam is still there, but instead of telling me that “He’s always on the scene. His engine’s bright and clean” as it did when I was younger, the music now urges viewers to “Move aside, make way ’cause he’s gonna save the day”. Something of a brash change in tone.

And what about Postman Pat? They’ve had the decency to keep the opening music, but as the closing credits roll, I am now entreated to a guessing game: “Postman, Postman Pat, can you guess what’s in his sack?” A tedious game at best, since the answer is always the same (presumably because otherwise they would have to keep rewriting and rerecording the song). If the suspense is killing you, I can reveal that it’s Jess the cat in his sack.

And then there’s Thomas the Tank Engine. A cheerful – even enjoyable – tune has been replaced by an ear-desecrating inane babble telling anyone who can’t avoid listening that “They’re two, they’re four, they’re six, they’re eight, Shunting trucks and hauling freight, Red and green and brown and blue, They’re the really useful crew!” I kid you not. Every word true.

As observed, I am not a grumpy old man, and bring this to your attention purely by way of constructive information sharing. Well, that, and because of the final line. “They’re the really useful crew.”


A useful engine
Literary historians among you will know that being “a useful engine” dates back to the early days of Thomas, and the episode “The Troublesome Trucks”. As the franchise has developed, “usefulness” has become more fundamental to the series, to the point that being useful seems to somewhat underpin the modern Thomas. The Fat Controller’s ultimate compliment seems to be “Well done Thomas! You’re a very useful engine!”.

There’s a sense in which it echoes modern life: We must demonstrate our usefulness to be of value as people. This means we have to be involved in an endless drive for greater productivity. If we aren’t seen to be productive; to be useful, then we risk losing our value.

But perhaps there is a greater wisdom in Thomas than I give him credit for. Because when he is commended for being useful, what he has actually done is nothing more and nothing less than what the Fat Controller has asked of him. It is the Fat Controller who sees the grand scheme of things. If the Fat Controller sends Thomas to rescue some errant carriage, but sends Percy to operate the branch line, has one been more useful than the other? I would venture not.

It is up to the Fat Controller to make the engine’s obedience useful. Their usefulness is defined not by what they achieve, but by their obedience.


I suspect I am not alone in sometimes wondering whether what I’m doing at any given point really has any use. Am I maximising the value of my time? Am I being as profitable as I can with my efforts? I find it easy to choose not to do things because they don’t seem useful. Or to judge something as a failure because the outcome didn’t seem useful. And I suspect this true of individuals and groups and churches.

But when I stop to think of it like Thomas, who am I to decide whether what I have done is useful?

Mother Theresa of Calcutta deftly cut to the heart of our concern to be perceived as useful (or, in her words, “successful”)

We are not called to be successful but to be faithful.

Perhaps when we are concerned about whether what we are engaged in is useful or productive, a more appropriate question would be “Is it what God is asking me to do?” If it is, then it is up to God to make our obedience useful.

© Original Photo Christine Matthews
© Text 2014 Paul Brownnutt

Creative Commons License

Being God’s Toddler by Paul Brownnutt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Today’s post is brought to you by Isaiah 55:11. You can always think about it in the little we know of a guy called “Useful” (Greek “Onesimus”) in the very short book of Philemon

Praying for a helium balloon on a Thursday

The hunter and the hunted

As a grown up (a claim I make several times a day just to reassure myself) I know that I am stalked day and night by a tireless foe; a hunter that I cannot defeat, avoid or slow down; that whatever I do, slowly and relentlessly, one day at a time, this predator approaches its quarry and that eventually, as the summer approaches, another birthday will catch up with me.

But it was not always thus. Once I was like my children, desperately counting the days (starting at 364) until their next birthday. And as Oliver’s 9th birthday approached recently, things reached fever pitch.

Party planning

We had asked him what theme he wanted for his birthday party and, after much soul-searching, he was unable to decide between Harry Potter and Skylanders. So he wrote invitations saying it was both, and that was that.

I may not be a fan of my own birthday, but I do love to work on a theme and so, if I say so myself, I rose admirably to the challenge. I put new spins on old games. A mound of flour was transformed into Hogwarts castle with the addition of a flag. Dressing up clothes became Mad-Eye Moody with the inclusion of a wooden (OK cardboard) leg. Pictures of Spyro were hidden around the house with secret passwords on them. And all with a level of secrecy which would have MI5 taking notes.


Ah yes, but did I mention that small people get very excited by birthdays? And frustrated by the absence of visible evidence, Oliver became convinced that mummy and daddy weren’t on the case at all. We clearly needed guidance. He began to make outrageously specific demands. We must play pass the parcel with a certain wrapping paper. We must play musical bumps with the music from “Ice Age 4”. We must buy a helium balloon on Thursday. Eventually Oliver had a meltdown*, in the middle of a shop, two days before his party. “You haven’t bought me a balloon! You don’t even know which one I want! You don’t know anything I want! I don’t want a party!” he screamed.

Well, quite. We actually had every intention of buying a helium balloon the following day and involving him in the decision. But he was basing his views of what a party should entail on what parties entailed when he was five. I was planning things for a nine year old. He didn’t trust his dad to take a simple request for a party and do it in the right way.

My meltdowns

Yet again, I find myself looking in the mirror. This is my standard M.O. in prayer. “God, help me through this situation. And help me by making this happen, that happen, the other happen and GOD YOU’RE NOT DOING IT RIGHT, YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING, YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT ME!”

Or perhaps “God, this person is going through a tough time. Please help them. And make sure you do it by making this person say that to them, that person say this to them and ARE YOU LISTENING GOD, ARE YOU GETTING ALL THIS DOWN?”

…and breathe Paul.  Step away from the wheel Paul. Admit that perhaps God heard you, God cares, and God can organise a Harry Potter Skylanders party a damn sight better than you. He’s probably even thought of the balloons.

* Full disclosure: It is possible I may have had a meltdown back.

© Photo D. Sharon Pruitt
© Text 2014 Paul Brownnutt

Creative Commons License

Being God’s Toddler by Paul Brownnutt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Today’s post is brought to you by Luke 11:11-13

Theology of a one-year-old

Being a dad has many advantages, not least of which is seeing how our kids relate to us – and sometimes it can bring a whole new perspective to how we relate to our heavenly father.

I recorded this event when Oliver was one year old.  I’ve sent it to a few people, but it bears retelling…

The theme of how we cope with the unknown has probably been preached quite enough times, but if we can relate to God as father, then Oliver’s teachings of 6AM on a wintry Tuesday morning are invaluable:

I had got up early to make coffee and get ready for work.  Oliver had got up with me, and we were pottering around the kitchen.  Monica was having a well-deserved few extra minutes of sleep.  The kitchen light was on, but all the other lights were still off, so we didn’t wake her up.

Suddenly Oliver vanished, and I heard him a few seconds later at the start of the hallway, shouting “Mama!  Mama!”

I ambled through and asked “Do you wanted to go and see mummy?”  He nodded.

“Go on then.”  He shook his head.  The light from the kitchen just reached where he was standing, but the rest of the hallway and the bedroom were dark.

“Are you worried because it’s dark?” I asked.  Nod.

“Are you worried because you can’t see where you’re going?”  Another nod.

So I held his hand, and said “Shall we go and see mummy together?”  Another nod, and off he went.

Suddenly it didn’t matter that it was dark, or that he couldn’t see.  Daddy was holding his hand, and daddy knew where he was going, so that was OK.

Perhaps I can learn…

© 2007 Paul Brownnutt

[Originally published 4th May 2008]